As winter loosens its grip on the more temperate regions of the globe, it’s sometimes hard to remember that cold and harsh weather conditions persist in the upper reaches of the Northern Hemisphere—and are just over the horizon for some high-elevation areas of the Southern.

Mining and logistical supply activities in cold, harsh climates are affected more severely by bad weather, and for longer periods of time, than elsewhere and successful operations tend to involve a combination of adaptability to changing conditions, foreshortened planning and scheduling horizons and occasionally, luck. Working under these circumstances can stress equipment and workers to the point of reduced productivity. Successful companies are cognizant of this risk and take steps to improve the comfort levels of both man and machine.

Two of the most vital considerations for isolated mines and camps are how to reliably supply these remote sites with fuel and materials, and how to keep workers happy and healthy during long periods away from the amenities of home. Recent reports and studies on both of these aspects seem to verify that finding effective solutions requires hard work, careful thought and ingenuity.

Ice is the Answer
For a number of far-northern operations, ice roads are the principal lifeline for bringing in bulk quantities of needed supplies. In Canada, for example, a joint venture involving several diamond mines each year builds and manages what is probably the world’s longest heavy-haul ice road, which stretches 600 km (360 miles) into the northern tundra—a region served by no other highways and for 10 months of the year accessible only by air.  The Tibbitt to Contwoyto winter road, made famous by the Ice Road Truckers TV series, begins east of Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, and winds north, terminating near the Diavik diamond mine, jointly owned by Diavik Diamond Mines Inc. (60%), a subsidiary of Rio Tinto; and Harry Winston Diamond Limited Partnership (40%). The road also serves De Beers Canada’s Snap Lake and Gahcho Kué mines and BHP Billiton Diamonds’ Ekati mine.

The ice road has, since 1998, annually been built and maintained by Nuna Winter Road Services, the division of mining services and logistics supplier Nuna Group that specializes in ice-road and ice-airstrip construction. The vast majority of the road (85%) is constructed over frozen lakes connected by 65 land portages. Currently in its 32nd year of operations, the ice road is open for approximately 10 weeks each winter.

Earlier this year, Diavik began its annual mine resupply effort and expected to transport approximately 3,500 loads of fuel, cement and other supplies up the 2013 winter road. The winter road had opened January 30 to initial light loads. As a result of the coldest winter in 20 years—with local daily mean temperatures averaging -16°F (-27°C) over the previous two months—the opening-day ice layer of 86 cm (34 in.) was 15 cm (6 in.) thicker than normal.

On February 1, load counts increased to standard frequency levels (four trucks dispatched at 20-minute intervals) and the road was expected to reach full load weight capacity, which requires 1.04 m (41 in.)
of ice, fairly quickly. The three diamond mines, and various exploration companies, expect to transport approximately 7,500 loads northbound over the 2013 winter road. The largest single commodity shipped is diesel fuel.

The weather doesn’t always cooperate with ice-road users, however. CBC News reported in late February that above-average temperatures in Alberta this winter were putting an ice road that connects Fort Chipewyan to Fort McMurray in peril, threatening to cut the northern community off from the rest of Alberta. Although the road is usually busy with truck traffic this time of year, warm weather had taken its toll, closing the route to heavy loads during the day. The community may have to rely more heavily on supplies flown in to Fort Chipewyan, with at least one aviation company considering shipping in twice as much cargo, the news service reported.

Warmer than anticipated weather isn’t causing problems just in Canada’s North. In Russia, GeoProMining announced just a few weeks ago that it had opened its
winter road connecting the company’s Sentachan gold-antimony mine in Yakutia with a main highway. But, according to the company, this winter has been relatively mild and weather conditions have shifted often and rapidly, adding complications to the process of constructing the road.

With northern parts of Russia historically experiencing temperatures below -67°F
(-55°C), the road typically goes into service from February until April, meandering along the frozen beds of the Elgi and Adycha rivers. It is the only ground-based transportation access to the mine, located 700 km from the nearest town; the rest of the year the mine can be reached only by helicopter. The road is used to transport ore and to supply the mine with diesel fuel and other materials necessary for the next production season.

Meeting Site Requirements
Whatever window of opportunity the weather allows, both operators and suppliers of remote sites must be attuned to planning and scheduling deliveries to keep everything running. Minerals processing and materials handling equipment supplier FLSmidth Ludowici, for instance, recently reported that it depends on another set of ice truckers to ensure delivery of its products to Russian customers during the limited time available in the winter months.

Robert Mold, FLSmidth Ludowici’s
sales and marketing manager, explained, “Basically, the [shipments] need some major organizing to get payment, production and logistics sorted so our products can get there on time. The delivery windows are very tight as it really is ‘ice truckers’ taking the goods in while the region is frozen.

“Wayne Horn, our fire assay product manager and our local agent in Russia, works with customers and our manufacturing plant in China to get our fire assay crucibles to customers in the northern reaches of Russia. It has been extremely beneficial having a local agent, as he speaks the language and understands the country’s culture and customs, as well as being familiar with remote locations and most feasible modes of transport,” said Mold.

“One Russian customer orders three to five containers of fire assay crucibles annually. These need to be delivered in one shipment, during their winter months, as the trucks need to travel on the ice. During the warmer months, the ice is too soft, which makes it difficult for transporting goods via road. It is critical that the order is received well in advance so there is sufficient time for the goods to be manufactured, payment received to ensure the goods can be released, and then be transported to and around Russia before the ice starts to soften,” said Mold.  

The team has worked hard to secure a purchase order with our Russian customers,” Horn said. Even a repeat [order] requires at least 30–50 emails to close the deal. A great deal of time and effort is required to negotiate and confirm terms of payment and delivery times, especially because the goods are required to leave China around Christmas/Chinese New Year time, when transport companies are extremely busy or closed.

“We have secured repeat orders for a number of years. These [circumstances] may be considered too difficult to deal with by competitors, as it takes so long (up to a month of negotiations) to secure an order, with many suppliers not closing the deal,” Horn said.

What Workers Need
Whether a mine site is in a remote Northern or Southern Hemisphere location, there are certain factors beyond minimal shelter and meal requirements that must be considered to provide a safe and efficient worker environment. In a recently released white paper, author Christopher Wanjek explores these remote-site worker-comfort issues in the context of “The Economics of Comfort,” a trademarked worker-accommodation strategy developed by the paper’s sponsor, Target Logistics Management LLC. The paper examines factors that affect worker health, safety and productivity in remote worksites and provides a rationale of how better catering and relaxation programs can increase productivity and lower accident rates.

Wanjek writes, “Workers at remote and temporary worksites are a diverse crew. They might be college-educated engineers. They might be high-school educated blue-collar workers. They are likely men, but they are often (and increasingly) women. But they often have one thing in common: They likely are leaving their families and the comforts of home for hard work and long hours. For most workers at remote sites, anything the company can do to relieve the stress of long hours and great distances will be a plus for worker health and morale and, by extension, for company safety and productivity.

“Successful food and housing programs at remote worksites—where ‘successful’ means high morale, high productivity, low absenteeism, low turnover and few, if any, serious accidents—have a few key ingredients:

•    CEOs or upper management that truly care about worker safety and health on and off the job.
•    Thoughtful catering that takes into consideration the nutritional needs (and not just tastes) of the workforce.
•    Easy access to recreational activities.
•    Opportunities to relax with co-workers.
•    The feeling of a home away from home, as opposed to a bunker away from home.

Catering will vary, but the daily menu must find a balance between tasty and healthy. Often meal programs strive for the former and not the latter.

“Consider the unique nutritional needs of a heavy laborer at a drilling site. Most workers will burn more than 300 kcal/hr. Fast-food or a carbohydrate diet can leave the worker hungry or weak after just a few hours on the job. In general, the body in manual labor requires 1.2-1.7 g of protein per kilogram of body weight. The B-complex vitamins, found in meats and whole grains, are needed for tissue repair and energy conversion. Vitamins A and C, found in vegetables, are needed for immunity. Vitamin D, found in fatty fish (and sunshine, if available), is needed for calcium absorption.

“Some enterprises also take into consideration the long-term health of the worker. Certain Canadian mining operations, for example, prepare special meals of whole foods (whole grains, vegetables, wild game) for a workforce largely comprising of indigenous workers of the First Nations, who suffer disproportionally from diabetes compared with the rest of the nation.

“The bottom line is that on-the-job weakness and fatigue translate to lower productivity and more accidents,” Wanjeck notes.

Although site specific comfort considerations can vary, the “heart of the matter is a feeling of ‘hominess,’” he explains. “Every comfortable bed, soft pillow, warm shower, lively pool room, exercise facility, clean laundry facility etc. will engender loyalty and good morale, and reduce the risk of fatigue through the five- to 10-day rotation of 10- to 12-hour shifts often expected from workers.

“The choice between living out of a motel, living in a trailer (or car), or living in high-quality all-inclusive temporary housing is an easy choice to make. And among all of the remote operations that do offer food and shelter, the choice between a ‘one-star’ and ‘four-star’ accommodation also is easy to make. Workers talk, and word will spread about which companies offer the best working conditions.

“Investments in feeding and wellness programs routinely yield profits in terms of higher productivity, fewer accidents, reduced absenteeism and less turnover.”

The author posits that, “Every manager desires a skilled and motivated workforce that not only can do the job but can do the job well. Thus, the manager of a remote worksite must ask, ‘Am I giving my workers what they need in terms of rest, motivation and nutritional energy? What is my food and housing solution? Will I offer no such accommodations and take what I can get in terms of workers? Will I allow my drivers to sleep in a truck in sub-zero temperature? Will I create temporary housing with poor preparation that might foul the land and worry the local community—a community already anxious about my being here in the first place? Or will I invest in superior food and housing solutions that will leave my workers well rested, nourished and motivated, and leave the community or environment as pristine as we found it?’”

In conclusion, the Target Logistics white paper states, “Remote-site food and housing accommodations, if planned well, can have numerous positive effects on profit and productivity. Tangible and immediate benefits can include well-rested and well-nourished workers with high morale and productivity levels and lower risk for serious accidents. Long-term benefits from such an investment can include community support and a positive corporate image.”